Thinking in Threes—Beauty in the beheld

A guest post by Carl B. Schmitt, Jr.

Have you ever come upon one of those discussions about whether beauty is objective or subjective?  Carl Schmitt went beyond dichotomies of this kind, seeing in them our culture’s tendency to get stuck in “dualisms.”  He favored what he called “trinal thinking” as the only fully human way for man to deal with the realities that confront him and to order his life in a truly satisfactory way.

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Carl Schmitt, Annunciation. Oil on canvas, c. 1922, 20 x 24 in.

Trinal thinking involves more than going from one to two to three: the “three” incorporates one and two.  It finds application when we experience reality outside of ourselves.  When I say, “That rose is beautiful,” it is the “I” as a subject that perceives the beauty, yet the beauty is found in a something that I actually see.

Trinal thinking credits both sides, raising the subject/object dualism to the level where we see what beauty is in itself.  Along with Beauty, trinal thinking applies to Truth and Goodness as well: all three involve going more deeply into the realities we encounter every day in our drive for meaning and happiness.

In the case of Truth, the intellect proceeds through the triad of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom.  While we can always pile up more and more knowledge, it is more important to accompany this with understanding.  The insights gained from understanding then lead to wisdom, by which we are open to what transcends and encompasses all reality. There is another triadic progress involving Goodness and the will, how we choose and order our loves.

Carl Schmitt, Annunciation, and Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), “Cestello” Annunciation, c. 1489-90 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Beauty is special in that, though it deals with reality as does truth and goodness, it never leaves behind the material aspect of reality, either in its subjective or objective levels.  On the subjective level, beauty as perceived by man involves his senses and imagination right along with his intellectual powers to know and love and choose—and this gives rise to feelings and emotions as well.  On the objective level, the material and spiritual unity in the beauty of the object itself gives rise to the mystery of reality.

When a man says, “Look at that attractive woman,” the person he’s speaking to may caution, “Be careful; her beauty is only skin deep.”  Man is capable of seeing more deeply.  And if he pursues it (or her) and gets to know her better and can start to appreciate many qualities she has, he may come to realize that “She really is a very beautiful person.”  Even the tiniest experience of beauty can gently remind us of—and even confront us with—the mystery of reality, in both the object and the subject.  Beauty, in short, is always mysterious.

Anno Domini - corrected

Anno Domini 1941, oil on hardboard, 1941, 14 x 18 in.

Schmitt strove to create works that would be beautiful, to place that mystery of reality before us.  The painting shown here, entitled Anno Domini 1941, stands as a comment on our modern culture.  The two airplanes in the painting may be seen as representing our devotion to the pursuit of knowledge solely to produce things that make money, to the point that the highest realities are obscured.  This painting is certainly a beautiful still life, yet if the viewer continues to gaze and ponder it, he may just catch the gentle irony in it—and some of the wisdom behind it.

Anno Domini 1941 detail and Botticelli

Carl Schmitt, Anno Domini 1941 (detail) and Botticelli Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, tempera on panel, 1468 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Further commentary on Anno Domini 1941 can be found in the Summer 2012 issue of the CSF News.

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